Education matters. This monthly column looks at God’s work in schools: through schools’ work and in children’s education as they think Christianly about what they study
If you are interested in this headline, I imagine you’re one of three types of people. You might be a primary school worker providing frequent assembled acts of worship. Maybe you’re a secondary school worker or chaplain in a similar camp, providing many opportunities for corporate gatherings. Or perhaps you’re like me, someone who would do more if the invitations came in more frequently.
Whatever your personal experience, I’m sure you’ve felt the gentle push away from gathered assemblies in the schools we serve. Maybe like me, you’ve provided video-based assembly experiences and want to get back to as much face-to-face work as possible. Or perhaps the pandemic put a stop to your opportunities all together. In my area, I’m responsible for around 18 secondary schools and have come across a range of reasons why schools aren’t planning to assemble as much as they once did. Regardless, let me take this opportunity to encourage you to keep assemblies or acts of collective worship (as some of you will know them) in your strategy for schools’ ministry.
We’ve all been there. You’ve planned a highly choreographed, tightly rehearsed presentation, the likes of which the youth-work greats of yesteryear could only aspire, only to find an oppressive atmosphere in the hall when you arrive. The young people shuffle in silently like they’re about to be given a verbal lashing from the head teacher. As you watch in horror, you notice each staff member cynically glaring at every problem student. Within 30 seconds, you’ve gleaned pretty much everything you need to know. Firstly, your presentation is going to be wasted in this situation. Secondly, as soon as you finish speaking, there’s definitely going to be an earth-shattering revelation in the form of an unhelpful senior leadership team epilogue that takes your main points out of context.
“The aim…should be to increase the young people’s understanding of themselves and the world around them.”
A vision for collective worship
For those of us who aren’t fully aware, an assembly in this context is an act of collective worship in school. Funnily enough, schools are still compelled to provide daily collective worship, although, as things stand, many don’t. Of course, some schools gather but will ask for general ‘British values’ style input rather than a Christian message. Still, in a sense, if you’re the one providing the input for an assembly like this, I would argue the theme is irrelevant. When you’re able to be present, prayerfully bringing the presence of God with you, it’ll be difficult to get it wrong.
Recently, I read an article about the benefits of collective worship on the Desiring God website. The article itself was talking about congregational worship in church, but I found it interesting that the writer identified five ‘benefits’ that had more to do with creating meaningful moments than it did with communicating Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, David Mathis was absolutely talking about our relationship with Jesus, but his five points could be applied as a vision for excellence in any gathered setting. Here are the headlines of what he wrote and some interpretations added by me:
- Awakening – create an environment to stir spiritual curiosity.
- Assurance – encourage and deepen understanding
- Advance – grow and develop thoughts and feelings
- Accepting another’s leading – allow space to listen and accept change
- Accentuated joy – increase joy through gathered experience
The aim of our communication in assemblies or acts of collective worship should be to increase the young people’s understanding of themselves and the world around them. There might also be opportunities to reflect on joy and sorrow, and if you’re really fortunate, you may also inspire them towards Jesus. But let me encourage you. If you can awaken something, encourage or stir spiritual curiosity, bringing some joy to a school in the space you’re speaking in to, then you’ve undoubtedly done a fantastic job.
Should I be doing assemblies?
Years ago, I had a vision for every young person in my area to have Jesus demonstrated in a significant way every year of their life in education. To make this vision a reality, I worked on a strategy that began with providing regular assemblies for students. The idea was that in assemblies, we saw everyone. After assemblies, I would teach in lessons and conferences, enabling an opportunity to deepen the relationship enough for some young people to choose to spend time with my team and me in lunchtime clubs, after-school groups and youth clubs. The point of this whole process was to turn our work output into meaningful outcomes.
Although I love presenting assemblies, I wouldn’t be happy to do them if the strategy wasn’t in place. Sadly, assemblies alone couldn’t be impactful enough, despite a hope that we might engage in the educational life of students over a long period. Although I want to be as present as possible, I have to conclude there must be opportunities for young people to engage with me on a deeper level to make sense of the time spent in collective acts of worship.
For you, there might end up being a similar strategic problem. Can you prepare and present great assemblies? I’m sure you can. Still, should you devote the time? That might depend on your vision and where you can create space for young people to come and spend time with you.